Of second novels and the slush-pile

I wrote my second  novel “Grandmother, Grandmother Come and See” in super quick time. It had fallen from me as one great chunk of granitic prose. I didn’t feel the need for a rewrite and sent it to my publisher, apologetically admitting that I had hardly touched the original manuscript. My editor loved it, telling me that it was sometimes the best way to approach a novel. That was in 1988/9. When the novel was published the front cover carried a comment from a reviewer that it was “A masterpiece of English magic realism.”

Today, would be writers are told the secret of publishing success lies in the rewrite, and I would be the first to agree. Honing and polishing until your would be agent or publisher can see your face (or should that read “their faces”) in the manuscript seems to be the order of the day. Sound advice, I think, if you are to see yourself in print. I recently finished “Watching Sparks Fly”. I lost count of the time it took to complete and the number of rewrites I made until I was “happy” with the finished ms. I was about to say “entirely happy” here, but I realise there is inevitably a niggle or two with the product no matter what stage it is at; striving for perfection is truly a waste of time and effort. After all, there are so many choices to make as one writes: Is one word or phrase better than another, at that moment? Should one use a comma or a semi-colon in such a sentence? And related to the punctuation itself is the question: How should my novel breathe? And so it goes on: Would my character truly behave in such a way? How is it best to begin the novel: with what sentence, with which word? There are so many choices to be made it is a wonder that a novel ever gets finished at all. But they do; everyday, thousands of them.

Perhaps my editor, when telling me that it is sometimes best to accept the initial manuscript, was offering a truth we don’t always care to see: The writer with one novel tucked beneath his belt has the trust of his editor, who already knows how well the novelist is able to write, and almost by definition likes the writing. But, for all of those unpublished authors competing for acceptance out of the slush-pile, then yes, it is rather obvious isn’t it, that you must present with the very best you can write to catch an agent’s eye. And that means, rewrite, polish and hone until you are sick of it, hopefully improving upon what you initially had  but with no guarantee of it.

I wonder how many other second novels just fell from the type-writer directly onto the desk of their editor ready formed. I recall my editor saying when he phoned to congratulate me after first reading the manuscript, “It’s like in writing this book you have learned to do it.” Implying, I suppose, that it was so much better than my first novel. He would be disappointed to hear that I now find myself in a curious place. I did once have the recognition and the acceptance which the unpublished seek, but after so long a time since my last publication I find I must somehow shout effectively from the slush-pile. Let them all know that “I am trapped in here”. I am working on it, and have only in the last week or two been requested to send the full manuscript to an agent.


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